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Yelp adds personalized search results to its iPhone app

After filling out a profile, users will get custom recommendations for the first time.
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Nathan Ingraham / Engadget

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For good or ill, it's common for internet services to track what you do and offer "personalized" suggestions. But Yelp, that stalwart of internet reviews, is for the first time letting its users build a profile of their tastes which will be used to make better recommendations. Those preferences will be weaved throughout the Yelp experience going forward, starting with the iPhone app. It's rather surprising that Yelp's results weren't more customized yet, but now the company says two users in the same location conducting the same search will see different results for the first time. Recommendations that pop on the home screen will also reflect your personal preferences, as well.

In the first part of the personalization setup, you'll be prompted to choose some dietary, lifestyle and accessibility preferences. This isn't the same as getting in deep and telling the app you love korean food or cocktail bars, though. It gives some high-level options to tell the app that you prefer gluten-free, kosher, vegetarian or vegan restaurants, for example. Yelp will then take these preferences into account across the service, highlighting restaurants that it knows have a good amount of vegan options, if that's what you need.

"Lifestyle" lets you tell the app whether you're a homeowner, auto owner, parent or pet owner -- this would be used to highlight locations that are pet-friendly, if you want a restaurant that'll let you bring your dog. Finally, accessibility encompasses places that are wheelchair-friendly as well as spots that offer gender-neutral restrooms.

After those preferences, Yelp asks you to select your favorites from a host of food and drink categories. The labeling is a little odd; you pick from "cuisine" (Chinese, American, Mexican, etc.), "food" (BBQ, burgers, pizza) and "snacks and drinks" (coffee, bakeries, donuts, ice cream). After filling out your food preferences, you do the same for a "things to do" section, which encompasses nightlife, activities (like arcades, beaches and hiking) and shopping and culture. Finally, the "lifestyle" section includes things like hair salons, spas, antiques, home decor and a few others.

Yelp personalization

It's a lot of things to consider, and some of the sub-categories seem a little unnecessary. Yelp says these lists will keep being updated and tweaked over time, so we'll see what the categories look like a year from now. The good news is that it's a simple process to swipe down the grid of icons and tap the ones you're interested in. Once that's done, you'll see those preferences reflected across your Yelp experience.

On the home screen, Yelp's "nearby and open now" area highlighted Thai, Middle Eastern and Mexican restaurants, all categories I checked off when setting up my profile. Search results for restaurants also highlighted my preferences. For example, one of the top restaurants in the search results had a tag noting it was the most-visited Italian spot in the neighborhood, with Yelp's new personalization heart reflecting that this was a category I'm interested in.

Yelp

At the top of search results is a grid of icons that lets you filter down those results by characteristics like delivery, takes reservations and so on. Yelp has also added some of your favorite categories to that set of filters so that you can easily tap on a cuisine that you've previously saved in your preferences to get to it quicker. And if you want to update all the things you picked during the onboarding process, you can tweak those preferences and favorites in your profile.

For starters, Yelp is rolling this out to about 60 percent of iOS app users today, with it hitting all iOS users in the fall. Android will get a "subset" of these features as well, but the full set of personalization features won't roll out until sometime next year. This isn't the only update Yelp has planned, too -- the company says that in the next year it'll launch a totally redesigned app. But for now, personalization is one of the bigger changes to Yelp's service we've seen in a long time.

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